Ground pork, English cucumber, red bell pepper, scallions, lemongrass and ginger come together quickly in Peppery Pork Cucumber Stir-fry—perfect for hot summer cooking. Recipe below.
Extreme weather puts us in the mood to take it extremely easy in the kitchen. I’ll let Marion tell you about a quick stir-fry she whipped up that tastes far more delicious than the short time spent in the kitchen would suggest.
All my complaining about the cool, non-summery weather has led to it being miserably hot and humid and weird. This month alone, we’ve had a giant hailstorm that swept across the city accompanied by lightning (we heard it coming, this low drumming advancing toward us in the dark, long before we figured out what it was, and then so much hail, no rain, just hail); then a derecho uprooting trees and hurling around heavy objects on its thousand-mile path; then, this weekend, a day of basement-flooding, record-setting rainfall.
And in between all of this, most of the time it’s been hot—at times so hot that my colleagues in places like Florida and Arizona and California have been helpfully pointing out that it was actually being cooler there, in all those places. (Guys! Thanks, guys!) And along with the heat is a chemical veil over everything, so that when the wind blows, you actually feel worse.
So we have been hunting for dinners that cook up fast. Things mostly made from ingredients, not products, things refreshing to the eye, and nothing including the word slow. A few things came together that gave us the idea for this stir-fry. First, we ran across a spice I had never heard of before: Isot pepper, imported from Turkey. It’s only a little hot, and has a mahogany color and a mellow, fruity, slightly smoky taste. (You’ll find more about isot pepper in the Kitchen Notes.)
Then Terry had to go out of town for a few days, and when he came back we went straight from the train station to Lao Beijing for lunch, where we realized that the green vegetable coins in one of the dishes were not zucchini but cucumber. And then, the next morning at the Logan Square Farmers Market, we found beautiful organic English cucumbers from The Gentleman Farmer and just as beautiful pasture-raised, organic ground pork from TheMeatGoat. Not too much thinking was needed after that. Start to finish, including ten minutes of prep, this should take you 20 or 25 minutes, if you start the rice first. Less time than takeout.
Peppery Pork Cucumber Stir-fry
1 pound ground pork
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon chopped tender part of lemongrass
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons fresh ginger (about 1/3 inch), peeled, smashed and minced
1 bell pepper, slivered
1 English cucumber (about 7 or 8 ounces), sliced into coins
8 scallions, finely chopped crosswise (about 1/2 cup)
1 tablespoon isot pepper, divided
For the sauce:
1/2 cup water
1/3 cup soy sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
Put the pork in a bowl and add 2 tablespoons soy sauce and 1 tablespoon cornstarch. Mix it together well with your hands, then let it sit for 10 or 15 minutes.
In a heavy-bottomed skillet or a wok, heat 2 tablespoons canola oil. Prepare a plate to drain the cooked pork, with two or three layers of paper towel or a lint-free cloth. When the oil is hot, add the pork all at once, breaking it up into small chunks as you stir and cook. Cook it thoroughly, then scoop out of the pan (I used the Joseph Joseph scoop colander, which sees a lot of action at our house) and drain on the towel.
Discard any fat in the pan and wipe it clean. Add 1 tablespoon oil and heat it on a medium flame. Set a timer for 5 minutes.
When the oil is hot, add the lemongrass, garlic and ginger, and stir for 30 seconds. Then add the bell pepper; stir and cook for another minute. Add the cucumber coins; stir and cook everything for one more minute. Then add the scallions, cook and stir for another half minute, and then add in the pork and mix everything together.
Give the sauce ingredients a quick stir and pour into the pan. Stir everything together—the cornstarch will cook very quickly and there will be just enough sauce to coat everything lightly. At the last moment, stir in 2 teaspoons of isot pepper.
Serve over cooked white rice. When you plate this, to finish, scatter more isot pepper over everything with a generous hand, and serve.
Desperately seeking isot pepper. We got our supply of isot pepper from Lezzet Spices here in Chicago; they also sell it on their website. You should be able to find it—perhaps sold under its alternative names, urfa biber or urfa pepper—at shops with Middle Eastern products and a number of online sources, including Zingerman’s (where it’s sold as Urfa Red Pepper Flakes). If you cannot find it, substitute freshly ground black pepper—it won’t be the same, but it will be good.
Some sources say that its distinctive flavor is lost with long, slow cooking, and others, oddly, say the flavor grows with long cooking. I can’t vouch for either—it is certainly involved in a bunch of slow-cooked stew recipes out there. We are going to be trying isot pepper a lot in the coming months. I am thinking about sprinkling it on pizza and scrambled eggs, adding it to lentil soup, and if it ever gets cool again, simmering it in a lamb stew or adding it to our gingerbread recipe.
Because isot pepper doesn’t have much heat to it, if you want to bump this up the spice scale, I recommend tossing three or four dried red pepper pods into the cooking oil when you add the aromatics. Just be sure to discard them before you plate. Alternatively, include a couple of diced fresh jalapeños—add them at the same time you add the cucumbers.
Speaking of cucumbers. English cucumbers are what you want—they’re widely available and well suited for a stir-fry, holding their shape well and lacking those big seeds that become obnoxious when cooked.